Democrat fights for political life in Bush country

CRAWFORD, Texas Sun Oct 24, 2010 11:57am EDT

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) waves on stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado August 27, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) waves on stage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado August 27, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Wattie

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CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - Deep in the red heart of Texas, a Democrat is fighting for his political life.

Chet Edwards is a 10-term congressman in a district that is conservative to the core and includes Crawford, home to the ranch of former Republican President George W. Bush.

A centrist who supports abortion rights, Edwards has long defied the odds in a district the Cook Partisan Voting Index ranks as the most Republican currently held by a Democrat.

But 2010 is open season on Democrats, and Edwards, an avid dove hunter who exudes an earthy "good old boy" charm, is in a heated battle against Republican Bill Flores, a businessman campaigning on a platform of fiscal conservatism. Most polls and local pundits give Flores a lead.

U.S. voters will elect 435 members of the House of Representatives and fill 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate in the election on November 2.

The Democrats will likely lose their majority in the House, which would curtail President Barack Obama's ability to pursue his agenda for the remainder of his current term in office.

Several residents of this far-flung rural district who backed Edwards before said this time they were voting against Obama in a poll widely seen as a referendum on his economic policies.

Warren Johnson, 60, who runs a ranch for a community college, is one. Johnson, who supports the conservative Tea Party movement, said he cast his ballot for Flores in early voting.

Johnson said Edwards lost his vote during the debate over health care reform, Obama's signature domestic initiative. Edwards didn't vote for the final version of the bill but did cast yes votes during some of its procedural stages.

"I went to his town hall meetings during the health care debate and he didn't commit. And when he finally made the commitment to vote against it, it was because they had enough votes to pass it," said Johnson, who has a Tea Party sign in front of his heavily-wooded 12-acre (five-hectare) property in Crawford.

Edwards says those procedural votes were just to set the rules and his opponents have portrayed them unfairly.

"I voted against the health care bill twice and those were the key votes," he told Reuters in an interview.

Edwards also made a short-list of vice-presidential running mates for Obama, and that doesn't sit well in these parts.

"Many people are voting as a referendum on the government and he's on the wrong side of that now, especially in the state of Texas ... and he has a centrist voting record, he's not really in the conservative 'blue-dog Democrat' category," said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

RUNNING WITH WOLVES

Edwards has won hearts and minds here with support for veterans and their benefits. Even those who won't vote for him this time like a man whose personality has trumped party.

"They are a bunch of radical socialists who have hijacked the Democratic Party. Chet is a good guy but he's running with the wolves," said Jimmy Don Holmes, 39, a heavyset welder who runs a metal art and welding shop in Crawford.

Holmes has voted for Edwards since he finished high school but he won't do so this year.

Others remain loyal to Edwards, who has spent years building political capital in the area.

Jamie Burgess, whose family runs a small souvenir shop in Crawford selling Bush memorabilia, plans to vote for Edwards again.

"When we opened the shop in 2000, he came in and bought local art work from us to decorate his offices in Waco and Washington. He gave us a boost," Burgess said.

In the town of Cleburne, realtor Rick Cumins says he has long supported Edwards but hasn't made up his mind.

"I'm going to check a couple of more things before I tick the box," he said.

Edwards himself is guarded about his prospects.

"People always look at this district and say, 'a Democrat can't win this,'" he said.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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